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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > January/February 2006

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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2006
Cover Story

Libraries Lead the Way for Voter Registration Services
By Judy Hoffman

Thanks to the magic of the Internet and a vibrant spirit of networking and collaboration, on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2004, more than 80 Illinois libraries joined together to “Honor Septem-ber 11: Register to Vote @ your library.” By the end of the day, close to 2,400 people had registered to vote at these libraries.

This voter registration project was initiated by the North Suburban Library System (NSLS) in Wheeling, Ill. NSLS is a state-funded coordinating agency for 650 academic, public, school, and special libraries in the north and northwest suburbs of Chicago. It serves libraries over 960 square miles, covering 83 communities and nearly 1.9 million library patrons. After this project was completed, it received special recog­nition from the office of the Cook County Clerk and a 2005 John Cotton Dana Public Relations Award. In the John Cotton Dana citation we were commended for “outstanding positioning of libraries as centers of critical community services.” This view of the project was very ex­citing to the participants because it validated our ongoing efforts to expand the work and ­perception of our libraries as community centers. Here’s how we did it.

An Idea that Sparked Action

NSLS member libraries have a long history of networking and learning from each other. NSLS has close to 40 networking groups that connect individuals with the same jobs or interests, and one of the longest-running (at more than 15 years old) is the public relations networking group. As NSLS’s marketing communications specialist, I’m a member of this group. We meet three or four times a year, and between meetings share information on an NSLS e-mail list. This is our local edition of the American Library Association’s national PRTalk, to which most also belong. The NSLS list supports timely local resource sharing, and helps gather information quickly for press calls.

At a February 2004 meeting of the PR networking group, someone asked what the other libraries were planning to do to commemorate 9/11. The librarians were in agreement that their communities still wanted to acknowledge and reflect on 9/11. No plans surfaced at the meeting, but the members promised to share any ideas they might have afterward on the NSLS PR e-mail list.

A couple of days after the PR group met, I worked as a volunteer registering voters at the Evanston Public Library. I spoke with library director Neal Ney about continuing registration through the year. He suggested a regular monthly date, such as the second Saturday of each month. Marking my calendar, that got me to Saturday, Sept. 11. Having just gotten so much positive feedback from patrons, the proverbial lightbulb went on. A systemwide voter registration seemed like a natural outreach effort for libraries to have on Sept. 11.

I ran the voter registration idea past two champs of community outreach, Frances Roehm, a librarian at the Skokie Public Library, and Bonnie Forkosh, community service head for the Wilmette Public Library. Their response was “Sign us up!” Both felt this would fit the mission of community service for their libraries and would be embraced by directors and staff. An advisory group was created on the spot when both women agreed to be involved with the project.

Designing a Project to Meet a Need

I first mentioned the idea of a systemwide voter registration drive on Sept. 11 to NSLS public libraries on the electronic mail list. I introduced the project with the following objectives:

1. Honor this important date in a meaningful way.

2. Support participation in the democratic process.

3. Provide a service not regularly available in communities on weekends.

4. Stimulate positive media coverage for libraries.

5. Achieve measurable outcomes for library service.

The response from NSLS librarians was immediate and positive. About 60 percent of the respondents said that they provided voter registration. This number was evenly split between libraries that provide registration as an ongoing service with staff registrars and those that have volunteers on site at scheduled times during the year. For the majority, voter registration only took place during the final week of the registration period, which would have been in early October.

Some mystery person on the list forwarded my e-mail message to the League of Women Voters of Illinois (LWVIL), and a representative called to propose a partnership for the project. The LWVIL wanted to provide deputy registrars for libraries that did not have staff registrars. It also felt the partnership would be an effective platform for addressing the serious problem of voter apathy in the U.S. (Surprisingly, the U.S. ranks 139 out of 172 countries in terms of turnout of the
voting-age population.)

Libraries from other Illinois library systems heard about the NSLS Sept. 11 voter registration project and asked if they could be part of it. The 41 participating NSLS libraries were joined by another 40 libraries from six other Illinois systems.

Harnessing the Power of the Internet

With a 4-month window to plan and promote these events, we needed to pull information and resources together quickly.

At the end of May, I had a planning meeting with the LWVIL, staff from six NSLS public libraries, and a staffer from the Prairie Area Library System. We decided that all promotion to participating libraries and resource sharing would be handled electronically. This would speed up delivery time and keep implementation costs to a minimum. The planning team began by crafting a project title that we felt would effectively promote the event—Honor September 11: Register to Vote @ your library. Next we shaped an internal promotion plan to be launched by NSLS and the League of Women Voters within 30 days. The plan included these segments:

E-mail list: A project-specific e-mail list would be the main source of communication for participating libraries. This list would be used to announce and share available resources.

Logo: A project logo would be created for use by all participants, and would be available for downloading in various formats on the project Web site.

Web site: NSLS would create a project resource section on its Web site that would include a suggested project timeline, downloadable logo graphics and customizable fliers, local promotion plans (with a press release template), links to state and county voter registration guidelines, and deputy registrar guidelines.

LWVIL letter: The league would promote the project to all state chapters, asking them to contact their local libraries to encourage participation and to offer assistance. It would also post information on its Web site.

According to plan, NSLS launched the complete Sept. 11 voter registration project Web site at the end of June. It included online registration for new libraries that were interested in participating, and it automatically enrolled libraries on the project e-mail list. The only budget output was $500 for the project logo, which was a hit with the participating libraries.

The major early effort on the part of many participating libraries was organizing large-scale deputy registrar trainings. Some libraries scheduled training sessions for their staff members and invited other libraries in their county to send staff. Other libraries organized trainings, often in partnership with the League of Women Voters, for both library staff and the community-at-large. NSLS staff tracked deputy registrar training sessions organized by other community organizations and county clerk offices in the Chicago area, and publicized trainings to libraries electronically. All in all, approximately 250 staff and community members completed deputy registrar training in time for the Sept. 11 voter registration drive.

Harnessing the Power of the Press

In late July, project participants contacted editors at each of the major newspapers in the region to discuss the Sept. 11 project. In each case, the editors promised to assign reporters to cover it. What seemed to attract them was the combination of the large number of libraries, the recognition of 9/11, and the tie-in with the upcoming election.

The press coverage for our voter registration effort had long legs, starting a full month before with articles about the ex­tensive training for deputy registrars going on at libraries, and building to a semi-frenzy (in my mind) between Sept. 7 and 11. On Sept. 7, the Chicago Tribune, one of the nation’s largest daily newspapers, featured our participating libraries on the “front page” of the paper’s Web site. We couldn’t remember the last time a major newspaper featured a positive library story (as opposed to those on filtering, etc.) so prominently.

This highly visible Web presence generated coverage on a number of National Public Radio affiliates in Illinois, including Chicago. It also generated stories on two of the largest commercial radio stations, WBBM-AM and WGN-AM. WGN broadcast two different pieces on the Sept. 11 project, running from Sept. 7 to 11. Other area newspapers ran both articles and editorials on our project for 2 weeks prior to Sept. 11.

Participating libraries actively and expertly promoted their participation to local press, which, along with the regional PR from NSLS, generated media coverage beyond expectation.

Harnessing Stats to Tell Our Story

To meet our fifth goal of accomplishing measurable outcomes, we sent an e-mail at the end of August introducing an online survey for librarians to fill out after Sept. 11, and re­minding them to keep a tally of people they registered on Sept. 11. Many libraries that provide voter registration regularly said that they had not previously kept statistics for this service. We suggested that this tally should be ongoing as it is valuable information about library service to share with the community, civic leaders, and government representatives.

One of the things we wanted to find out was if the Sept. 11 voter drive affected a library’s involvement with voter registration. Nearly 20 percent of the participating libraries noted that the project resulted in an increased commitment at their library. Some forged stronger relationships with volunteer organizations and increased the number of days the organizations would be on site for registration.

Most notable were the 10 libraries that said that, with the impetus of this project, they added voter registration as a new service. These libraries had a large number of staff trained to be deputy registrars so that voter registration could be offered to patrons all working hours. This added to the libraries’ vision to serve as community centers, offering a mix of traditional and nontraditional services that fit the specific needs of their communities.

Here are a few of the actual comments submitted in the post-event survey:

“We usually don’t get such a large turnout. People were even waiting in line! . . . thanks for giving us the opportunity to do this—it was a pleasure.”

“We established closer ties with the League of Women Voters . . . we have never cooperated on voter registration before. It went smoothly and we hope the association continues.”

“This has been a terrific learning opportunity and our staff members are very excited to offer this new service. It has renewed the patriotic spirit in all of us.”

Partnerships and Patriotism

The expertise and enthusiasm of library staff, along with our partners at the League of Women Voters, helped librarians expand service to their community, offered new opportunities for staff, and strengthened community partnerships. It was a joyous melding of the power of the Internet and the power and vision of the library community.

How many people voted in the 2000 general election?

(the estimated percentage of the voting-age population that actually voted)

Whole U.S.: 49.3%

Illinois: 60–66%


Judy Hoffman has been the marketing communications specialist at the North Suburban Library System in Wheeling, Ill., for 7 years. She holds a B.A. in speech communications from the University of Illinois. She thinks there are a variety of ways to serve your country, and she chooses to do so by serving as an election judge and voter services chair for her local League of Women Voters chapter. Her e-mail address is jhoffman@nsls.info.

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